When you look at the beautiful displays of fruits and vegetables in most supermarkets nowadays you might think there is no need to clean your purchases when you get home. But washing and handling your fruits and vegetables properly can be key to maintaining good health and preventing serious illnesses, such as Salmonella. As vegetables are often eaten raw, there is no chance to destroy any pathogens, such as bacteria and parasites, through the process of cooking.
In addition, long periods of transport and storage may allow build-up of mould, as well as necessitate a potentially toxic layer of pesticides on the surface of the fruit or vegetable, which may cause long-term harm when we consume large quantities regularly. So it is essential that we learn how to clean our fruits and vegetables properly before eating them.
Don’t Trust Appearances
Even beautiful smooth-skinned, clean-looking fruits and vegetables can still harbour bacteria and other pathogens on their surface. A recent study showed that when tomatoes were cut in half with a knife, bacteria was spread all across the cut surface of the tomato. Even with fruits and vegetables that need to be peeled, bacteria such as Salmonella can grow on the skin and then be transferred onto the inner flesh when it is cut open. So no matter what the fruit or vegetable looks like and even if you would not eat the outer surface, it is always important to thoroughly wash the vegetable or fruit before consuming it.
Similarly, with the “ready-washed” bagged salads that are becoming more and more popular in our time-pressured society, it is essential to rinse these again even if the bag claims that the contents have been pre-washed. This is because you cannot trust the employees who package the salads to clean the vegetables properly and because bacteria such as E.Coli can grow rapidly and “cling” to the vegetables, despite a previous washing.
Clean, Running Water
The best way to wash fruits and vegetables is to use clean, running water, rinsing all surfaces thoroughly. In some cases, you can soak the produce for a few minutes to remove as many contaminants as possible. Despite extensive research, there is no proof to date that using weak chlorine bleach solutions or any of the “commercial fruit and vegetable washes” are any more effective than plain, clean water. Chlorine may work well to sanitise kitchen surfaces but it does not work so well in the complex chemical environments of vegetable and fruit surfaces. In addition, it may leave harmful chlorinated compounds on the fruit and vegetable surfaces, which may change the taste and also cause poisoning.
Similarly, never use soap as it is not intended for use with food and can be more difficult to rinse off than from dishes, thus leaving a toxic residue, which you will then ingest. If you really want to try something more than simple, clean water, you could wash your produce in a solution of 3 tablespoons vinegar in a quart of water or a weak salt solution of 4 teaspoons salt in a gallon of water.
Brushes and Other Props
For vegetables and fruit with thick skins, it is a good idea to use a vegetable brush. Always scrub the rinds of citrus fruits and melons and the skins of vegetables like potatoes under running water, to get rid of as many soil particles and associated bacteria, viruses and parasites, before cutting them with a knife.
For fruits and vegetables with smooth, shiny skins – such as tomatoes and nectarines – hold them under running water and gently rub their surfaces with your fingers. If the fruit or vegetable is fragile (e.g., raspberries), put them in a colander and gently spray with water.
What About Pesticides?
While pesticides can certainly be a worry, overall the benefits of eating fresh fruit and vegetables outweigh any negative effects from pesticides. However, you can reduce your exposure by making sure that you wash your fruit and vegetables thoroughly before consuming them or cooking with them. Many pesticides are water-soluble and will come off if the produce is rinsed or soaked in water.
In addition, try to buy organic produce or at least things that are seasonal and local, as longer storage and shipping distances will mean more use of pesticides. Discard the outer leaves or peel off the skin, even if it means that you may lose some nutrients in the process and eat a variety of vegetables and fruits so that you do not ingest large amounts of any one type of pesticide residue.
Finally, remember to only wash fruits and vegetables just before you plan to eat or cook them as clean produce can still grow mould and bacteria during storage in the fridge or pantry. Also, remember that bacteria and other pathogens are more likely to grow in any cracks, splits or scars and other damaged parts of the fruit and vegetable so always trim such areas away before consumption.